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Jim McDermottNovember 12, 2007
Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., in 1968 (ARSI Roma).

Pedro Arrupe, during his 18-year term as superior general of the Society of Jesus, was helped by sets of four Jesuits elected, like himself, during international meetings of Jesuits known as general congregations. These aides, called general assistants, served as a sort of inner circle with whom Arrupe could consult and plan and upon whom he could depend for implementation and explanation to the Society and the wider church.

Among those who served as general assistants over the years were the Irish Jesuit , the French Jesuit and the American . Fathers McGarry and Calvez came on as assistants some years after Arrupes generalate began in 1965. Father OKeefe, a native of New Jersey and a member of the New York Province of the Jesuits, served as a general assistant through the whole of Father Arrupes tenure. After Arrupe suffered a severe stroke in 1981, OKeefe had responsibility for governing the whole Society of Jesus for a time.

These three men knew Pedro Arrupe as few others did. Jim McDermott, S.J., associate editor of America, spoke with them about their memories of Father Arrupe.

Look Around

Calvez:When Pedro Arrupe became general in 1965 at the end of the Second Vatican Council, the Society of Jesus was doing very well. It was creating a number of new works, new schools and opening up new missions in Africa and Asia. But Arrupe wondered whether the Society might also be asleep, not attentive to new developments in the world. One has to remember that this was the moment of decolonization that changed the world after the Second World War. Arrupe knew that, and therefore for him it was very important to bring the Jesuits to look around. He didn't have specific goals in mind, a plan. He just wanted people to look around and discover for themselves what to do, what new things should be thought of. So he asked every province to survey different aspects of civil society, the world and the church, to see what new things were brewing.

A word he frequently used was availability. You have to be available. But that did not mean just obedience to what your superior may tell you. It meant deeply available, open to the needs, to the views, to anything around you. A Jesuit would give importance to the decisions of a superior, too, but Arrupe expected the individual not to wait for a decision or advice of a superior but to be himself attentive to the spirit, capable of finding his way by himself too.

OKeefe: People would say to Arrupe, Where is the Society of Jesus going? And he'd say, I don't know. Well, they'd all rush for the exit. The faint of heart would collapse. But, Arrupe went on, God knows, and we have to hear from God. That's why we have to be open to the signs of the times, John XXIII's great concept. God is leading us today to live the Gospel in new ways. We have to be open to that, and ask God to enlighten us and follow his lead. We have help in our brothers and sisters out there and in the great events of our times. These are telling us something.

Pedro Arrupe considered that the basic gift religious life could make to the world was to bring God to them.

We speak of being prophetic, he said; well, prophecy is not just about the future. The prophet is the one who can point out the finger of God in events, whether they are past, present or future. Prophecy is showing where God is active here. He would say, bring out the God flavor in things, show where God is present, whether it is in a good thing or a bad thing. You have to work at it.

The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice

Calvez: Arrupe had a feeling that for many people, God was pretty much absent from this world. Many were proclaiming themselves atheists at the time, and there was something rather aggressive in that. Belief, faith in God, was seen by some of them as dangerous, something that destroyed the capacity of people to take upon themselves their own destiny. Arrupe was very sensitive to this. He considered that the basic gift religious life could make to the world was to bring God to them. The world of the time appeared to him a kind of desert, and he considered that the religious had to live in that desert, to be a presence of God in that situation. He insisted very much on that.

McGarry: I think Arrupe's experiences in Hiroshima marked his whole life. That was what gave him a sense of the new world we were living in. Hiroshima and Nagasakiit was the bombing of civilian people, something quite new. Arrupe worked there among the poor who had been blighted by radiation from the atomic bomb.

As general, he saw people living in great poverty and misery, and he said that's not good enough.

OKeefe: Arrupe had a dream: he wanted to unite the best spiritual and apostolic talents we have in our Society. He was convinced that we were exercising our apostolate in a world burdened by unbelief and injustice and said those two factors should influence our whole apostolate. And so, when the 32nd General Congregation voted that the mission of every Jesuit is the service of faith and the promotion of justice in the name of the Gospel, he was delirious, he was so happy. People used to accuse him of just promoting his own agenda, but this wasn't just Arrupe, it was the Society. Now he had a mandate.

Saving the Foreign Missions

Calvez: After Vatican II there was a crisis about mission. The council had rightly decided to insist that God brings into his full salvation even people who had never heard of the Gospel, who lead a sound moral life, in exactly the same way as Jesus Christ preached to the people. That vital assertion of the council created in some people a sense that it's not so necessary to run to China or Japan or Africa to teach Christianity. Since everybody can be saved, why should we bother?

People can be saved, Arrupe insisted, but the Gospel has to be preached to every creature because of its meaning. The meaning of the life of Christ is very good to bring to all people. We have to meet all cultures, all creation.

Through his contacts with other religious congregations, Arrupe probably did more than anyone to save the idea of foreign missions.

Internal Conflicts

McGarry: The great majority of Jesuits reacted very positively under Arrupe's leadership; the young Jesuits were 100 percent behind him. But there were groups who could not take this new world; the 31st and 32nd General Congregations appalled them. They could not see the new direction as religious or spiritual at all. It was secularism introduced into the Society, and they dragged their feet the whole way.

Arrupe never did anything to those who were specifically against him. These were the times we were living through. The church was divided, every religious congregation was divided. Everything was so new to many people, and the idea of faith and justice being our central apostolate some couldn't see that at all.

People can be saved, Pedro Arrupe insisted, but the Gospel has to be preached to every creature because of its meaning. The meaning of the life of Christ is very good to bring to all people. 

OKeefe: Promoting justice became a big thing. The activists in the Society ran with that ball, others were left trailing. Through his talks and writings, Arrupe had to clarify that the service of faith and the promotion of justice go hand in hand. He felt we have to explain very carefully what we mean by promotion of justice. Don't think of justice as quid pro quo or distributive justice, he'd say. No, promoting justice means promoting in society that justice of the Gospel which is the embodiment of Gods love and saving mercy. Justice really is filled with love; that's the driving force.

Calvez: There was much tension in Central America between people who were progressive and others who said it was too much. Arrupe was confronted by the outspoken view of some Jesuits that if you think you have the right view of the church, you should go ahead even at the risk of dividing people. It was a kind of thesis of a few.

Arrupe called practically the entire province into a chapel in San Salvador and made a very solemn speech. You may think whatever you want, he told them; people think differently, and it happens very often among Jesuits in the Society. But never say that unity is a value that you can abandon. Never say that you can take the risk of division. Never say that.

Don't think of justice as quid pro quo or distributive justice, Pedro Arrupe would say. No, promoting justice means promoting in society that justice of the Gospel which is the embodiment of Gods love and saving mercy.

The Vatican

OKeefe: Paul VI knew us. He knew our Spiritual Exercises; he knew our history; he knew what we were doing. We liked him. He talked to us and he listened. You'd talk to him, and he'd look you right in the eye. I don't say he agreed with everything we did. He did not. But I would give him a high rating.

Calvez: There was a difficult time in the whole church from around 1968 until 1975. These were somewhat difficult times throughout the world, not just in the church, with a number of protests against certain decisions. In 1968 Paul VI published his famous encyclical about life and contraception, Humanae Vitae. The document was not well accepted. It was resisted by many theologians, among whom were a good number of Jesuits. Jesuits became associated with protests of that type with a frequency that made the pope complain: What's happening? He expected from the Jesuits a more cooperative attitude.

McGarry: The Vatican had been used to Jesuit superiors general who kept asking the pope, What can we do for you? That was the way of Arrupe's predecessor, Father John-Baptist Janssens. Janssens did everything he was asked to do.

But Arrupe would question things. When the Vatican complained about theologians or social workers, Arrupe would check up on the complaints made, and if he did not find them true, he would say so to the Vatican. The Vatican expected that Arrupe would decapitate people, but he didn't. He inquired into things; he had that great sense of justice. He wanted to hear the people and also hear their superiors and provincials. This was something altogether new for them.

Also, Arrupe did not always understand the delicacy with which Paul VI expressed disagreement. When he would come back from meetings with Paul VI, he would tell us what Paul VI said to him, and we were the ones who would see the real significance of the popes comments. He was so delighted to be with the pope, he saw things much more positively; he had a sort of mystique about the papacy. He was totally loyal to Paul VI, but Paul VI didn't think that. Paul was told by people in the Curia that Arrupe was a rebel. But Arrupe used to love to go to see him.


OKeefe: Arrupe was very disturbed by the boat people in Vietnam. He saw the crisis before anyone else did, saw that there were going to be millions of people involved, and no one was paying attention, no one else had the facilities we did. And he decided, this is for us: it is a huge problem, we have the men, the facilities and the theology, so we're going for it. In 1980 and 81 he started the Jesuit Refugee Service. At the same time he was thinking of resigning. He was an older man, yet he still went right for it; it was incredible. Even right before he had his stroke, he was still working for the apostolic dimension of the society.

People ask, was he a saint? Well I don't know exactly what a saint is, but if it means someone with a kind of spontaneous attachment to God, Arrupe was that type of person.

Sickness and Prayer

OKeefe: In 1981 Arrupe had a permanently debilitating stroke. It was a crushing blow. This was a man who was articulate in seven languages. We have letters all over the place; he wrote millions of words. But that stroke destroyed all the languages except Spanish, and even in that he was pretty hard to understand. After the stroke, Arrupe went from absolute independence to absolute dependence. He even had to have help eating. It lasted 10 years from August 1981 until his death in February 1991.

But Arrupe would point out that just as he was very apostolic in the years before the stroke, so was he just as apostolic after it, when he was silently suffering. As general he used to say to elderly Jesuits whose assignment was praying for the Society: Don't take that lightly, don't take that lightly at all. Sometimes he'd be at meetings where provincials would say things are desperate, we'd better go to prayer. And he'd say no, no, falsissimo! You start with prayer. You pray at the beginning; you don't wait until the signs are awful. You pray at the beginning. That's when you pray.

A Man Close to God

McGarry: I always felt when I was talking with him that God was the third one with us there all the time, because he was so in touch with God. He was a wonderful man to live with. You were so at ease with him, you were never thinking you were with The General. We were very good friends.

OKeefe: Arrupe had a wonderful sentence: Nowadays the world does not need words but lives that cannot be explained except through faith and love for Christ poor. He felt that our lives should be so filled with this radical spirit of Jesus in the Gospel, that unless you have this faith, you think we're crazy. It was a witness not of words but of lives. Arrupe was calling for a vital experience, a lively experience in faith, but also in a love of Christs poor. For Arrupe they went together, these two points: the faith and the poverty. To him they meant the whole thing.

Calvez: I must say that Arrupe changed my life. In him, I have been close to a person of particular inspiration. People ask, was he a saint? Well I don't know exactly what a saint is, but if it means someone with a kind of spontaneous attachment to God, Arrupe was that type of person. He had an immense spontaneity in his spiritual attitudes, which translated into great charity in words as well as in deeds for anybody. And he had all this to such a degree that you would say yes, if sanctity is anything, it must be like that.

Watch a video interview with Fr. Vincent OKeefe.

More from America:

More: Arrupe
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
16 years 3 months ago
Dear America, The print edition of America (Nov 12, 2007) promised a video interview with Vincent T. O'Keefe, S.J. cf bottom of article "Seizing the Imagination" by Jim McDermott -- p. 16. I am not able to find this video interview which I would very much like to see. Louis J. McCabe, S.J.
Christopher WONG
16 years 3 months ago
It's a good article indeed. It's a bit pity that the article does not mention the relationship between Don Arrupe & John Paul II, especially after Arrupe's stroke and the Vatican refused to let O'Keefe to lead the Society.
Christopher WONG
16 years 3 months ago
It's a good article indeed. However, it's a pity that the article does not mention the relationship between Don Arrupe & John Paul II, especially after the stroke of Arrupe and the decision to appoint Fr. Dezza to take over the governing of the Society of Jesus.

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